Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011

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April 7, 2011 by markstani

The long-list for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is varied and fascinating. The short-list will be announced later this month. On the evidence of the four books I’ve read so far, it’s going to be a tough decision.

Villain by Shuichi Yoshida

‘Villain’ is a super-modern Japanese thriller set in a desolate landscape of love hotels and lighthouses. It’s about loneliness and passion in an utterly soulless environment. Its prose is stripped back and at times almost perfunctory. The plot – ostensibly, the murder of a young girl and the subsequent hunt for and travails of its perpetrator – slides along and is lent zest by flashbacks and constantly changing narrative perspectives. There’s a slight dip in the middle when, briefly, it’s hard to figure out who to root for, if indeed it’s worth rooting for any of them at all. There’s also a minor issue with the clunkiness of some of the more colloquial dialogue, but I guess that’s just a translation issue that can’t really be helped. Those minor gripes aside, it’s an excellent book which really comes into its own in the final third, when it becomes virtually unputdownable.

Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo

It sounds kind of unsexy: an officious, over-zealous prosecutor going about his business in provincial Peru. But Roncagliolo has written an oddly addictive book. It’s sort of a thriller, as the prosecutor finds himself investigating a series of horrific murders which may or may not signify the re-emergence of the presumed dormant Peruvian terrorist group, the Shining Path. If the plot is at times a little too clunky and contrived to zip through on that basis alone, where this book wins is in its extraordinarily vibrant social, political and cultural history of the country that runs alongside. For those who like thrillers with a difference, and anyone remotely interested in Peruvian or South American history in general, this ought to prove a strangely satisfying read.

Lovetown by Michal Witkowski

Roughly one third of the way through this book, I thought I’d discovered something really special: the best possible antidote to all the frothy Book Club guff and woe-is-me misery memoirs stacking the mainstream shelves these days. In the end, I didn’t finish the book, but I stand by my initial impression. For bravery and audacity, it deserves top marks. It’s a series of associated vignettes about gay ‘Queens’ in Poland: set in the post-Soviet era, it pines for the dirty old days. It’s a no-holds-barred exploration of a garish, slutty sub-culture. Narrow-minded it is not. Its problem – and why I didn’t finish it – is its necessary lack of narrative. Read one of the bits and, in a sense, you’ve read them all. I don’t mean this to be as big a negative as it sounds. I love sprawling, shapeless, apparently plot-less books. Witkowski does for post-Soviet Polish queen culture what James Franco recently did for adolescent life in Palo Alto. It’s immersive stuff, and magnificent for it. It just didn’t need quite so much of it to make its point.

Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras

Beautiful and elegaic, this book tells the heart-breaking story of a family torn apart by the Argentinian military junta in the 1970s. It’s told from the point of view of a 10-year-old boy, who uses superheroes and board games to keep the truth at bay in the best way he can. At times it’s both funny and chilling, but in a certain respect its beauty and cleverness is also its slight failing: the plot sometimes plods; the terror, always there in the background, never quite comes to the fore; some of the philosophical chapters make for tough going. All of which criticisms are not intended to make this review especially negative: the author and the translator are clearly exceptional talents, and it’s a worthy long-lister.

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